The Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room sits empty. Disrupted by a postponement, a re-vote and a pandemic, this year's Student Assembly election only engaged 16.85 percent of eligible voters.

Michelle Feldman / Sun File Photo

The Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room sits empty. Disrupted by a postponement, a re-vote and a pandemic, this year's Student Assembly election only engaged 16.85 percent of eligible voters.

October 8, 2020

Student Assembly Election Sees Historic Lows in Voter Turnout

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Less than a fifth of Cornell students voted in this year’s Student Assembly presidential election, a historic low for voter turnout. Disrupted by a postponement, a re-vote and a pandemic, the election only engaged 16.85 percent of eligible voters, compared to 39.9 percent in 2019.

Cat Huang ’21 ultimately won the presidency and Bennett Sherr ’21 won the University Assembly representative in an election marred by invalid ballots and confusion over the voting period.

Savanna Lim ’21, co-director of elections, said COVID-19 was the biggest barrier to engagement since candidates could only campaign online.

“It’s just much harder in general to engage with your peers,” Lim said.

S.A. candidates mostly relied on social media to advance their platform this year, unable to hold in-person forums or hand out quarter cards on Ho Plaza. Candidates made few chalkings, which Lim said were once “bountiful and plentiful.”

“[In] an in-person campaign, usually campus is buzzing,” Lim said. “It’s really intense, there are people all over, like in Libe Cafe, just talking.”

Friday’s restart also made this election untraditional. Originally Sept. 29 through Oct. 1, the election started fresh Oct. 2 through Oct. 5 after Lim and co-director Moriah Adeghe ’21 realized an S.A. election rule invalidated ballots that had not been fully filled out. Before the re-do — which applied only to the races for president and University Assembly representative — students who did not rank all candidates on their ballot would have unknowingly disqualified their votes.

In 2019, as many as 1,435 ballots may have been discarded because of the faulty ranked voting system.

Lim added that “voter fatigue” may have also discouraged students from voting a second time, but likely didn’t dissuade passionate voters from casting ballots.

The election was also delayed since last March, when the pandemic abruptly sent Cornell students home, but Lim said she didn’t think the postponement affected this year’s turnout.

“In the spring, people had other things to do than to vote for their student government,” Lim said. “They were busy trying to find housing, trying to decide whether to stay on campus or leave, losing their internships and jobs.”

Whatever the reason, 2020 voter participation was significantly less than in elections as far back as 2016, when 29.3 percent of eligible students voted. 29.1 percent voted in 2017 and 27.36 percent voted in 2018. These numbers, as in 2019, included all ballots cast including those that would eventually be invalidated.

Lim said despite the low turnout, she’s happy with how the election went.

“I feel like we did the best that we could,” Lim said. “I’m happy that we can finally hit the ground running and actually start working for students.”